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SF Film Society’s Graham Leggat Celebrated by Friends & Colleagues in San Francisco Ceremony

SF Film Society's Graham Leggat Celebrated by Friends & Colleagues in San Francisco Ceremony

The Bay Area and the larger independent film community lost a champion for the art form in August with the passing of Graham Leggat who served as the head of the San Francisco Film Society until he stepped down in July.

indieWIRE first met Leggat in New York where he served as Director of Communications at the Film Society of Lincoln Center before being appointed Executive Director at SFFS in 2005. Leggat died in August following a battle with cancer.

In celebration of this pioneer’s life and legacy, friends and colleagues hosted a fete for Graham at the Palace of Fine Arts in San Francisco on October 4th. indieWIRE asked the San Francisco Film Society to publish four of the speech of rememberances from the event, including those from SFFS Board President J. Patterson McBaine, filmmaker Barry Jenkins, SFFS Acting Executive Director Steven Jenkins and Peter Coyote, a longtime friend of Graham Leggat’s.

indieWIRE thanks the San Francisco Film Society for sharing a part of their event with us.

J. Patterson McBaine – Board President, San Francisco Film Society

I first met Graham Leggat in August of 2005 when he came to apply for the position of Executive Director at the Film Society. He was the only Highland-bred, English/ Canadian/American-educated, Zen Buddhist, Tibetan Spaniel show dog trainer, videogamer, novelist, Tom Waits fanatic and punk rocker wannabe candidate that we interviewed. I thought his background and credentials, eclectic if not impeccable, rather set him apart from our other candidates and made him a perfect choice for the job. But I was concerned we might lose him to a Scottish ale company who wanted him as their leading man for a TV ad campaign hawking their brew and proclaiming him the most interesting man the the world. Fortunately, that gig went away, he chose us and the rest became history.

When Graham showed up here six years ago, both our life and his changed for the better and for good. Both he and the Film Society were in our forties, struggling with mid-life crises, seeking direction and renewal when we found each other. We were searching for a strong leader to put a charge into our place while Graham was searching for a place to be put in charge. It was serendipity, perhaps destiny. It was, as Graham liked to say, “lightning in a bottle”, the kind of stuff good film scripts are made of. When we hired him, we thought he’d be an art house hit. He turned out to be a multiplex blockbuster.

After several decades of purposeful wandering in pursuit of enlightenment and identity, Graham knew when he joined us that he had arrived at his destination and a dream calling which he was later to describe in his farewell letter to the SFFS in July as the “job that he loved and that loved him in return”. With us he found a home, an extended family to compliment his own, a community, an audience, a big screen and the role of a lifetime. Graham had found his groove and then he became a film star.

As a writer and screenplay devotee, Graham was infatuated with words. One moment he could enchant you with a lush poetic metaphor and then blow you up with one of his signature “F-Bombs” in the next. There is no shortage of words to describe him – athletic, aesthetic, bawdy, boyish, brilliant, charismatic, charming, committed, confident, dapper, diligent, driven, dynamic, eloquent, engaging, feisty, graceful, hip, intense, international, passionate, persistent, stylish, suave, visionary and witty. Graham was the perfect leading man for the Film Society.

The son of a legendary Scottish footballer after whom he was named, he was a natural leader who radiated positive energy and infectious optimism. He quickly embraced his mandate with the Film Society and became both our coach and captain as well as our impact and franchise player. He hired, inspired, enabled and empowered his staff with a vision, work ethic and a selfless ambition more for the organization and his team than for himself. While he never shied away from the spotlight and enjoyed his role as leading man, he was always quick and generous in crediting his supporting cast.

Graham arrived at the Film Society in a hurry, bursting through our door running at full tilt. A no-batteries-needed Energizer Bunny with smiling eyes, a boyish giggle and a lilt in his intonation, he had no “OFF” or “PAUSE” buttons and was seemingly forever in “FAST FORWARD” mode. Eschewing Woody Allen s assertion that “eighty percent of success is just showing up”, he took off with purpose like a man on a mission where failure was not an option and never looked back. He immersed himself with the sustained, single-minded discipline and determination of a tri-athlete in training. He consumed books on management, finance, strategic planning, non-profits, the convergence of traditional and new media and a bible on fundraising called “The Art of the Ask” which served him and us well. Graham knew he didn t arrive with all the answers when he came to San Francisco but he was hell-bent to learn or find them out in a New York minute. He constantly challenged and taught himself while demanding the same from all those around him.

Mindful of the need to revive the Film Society s reputation and relationships with audiences and filmmakers in our own community, Graham steeped himself in The City s history and cultural landscape before plunging headfirst into the local film and political scenes to repair damage, engage the folks that cared and mattered and convey the message that a new sheriff was in town. His tireless outreach efforts to rebuild and rebrand us locally did not go unnoticed or unappreciated. The Leggat era had begun and we were all off on an exciting and transformative journey.

Graham s relationship with his board of directors was tentative at the outset. He’d had little experience working with boards and we, of necessity, had become micromanagers of his predecessor. But with familiarity and early success, we both grew up and grew closer. Our working relationship became more collaborative though not without differences of opinion and occasional conflict. Like all strong and headstrong leaders with a sense of urgency and a perfectionist’s certainty of his own perfection, he crafted a large and dazzling vision and roadmap which he believed in, preached, pursued and fiercely defended. Often forgetting that his board, though engaged and generous, were volunteers serving without pay, Graham fought to repress his frustration that we couldn t match his time commitment and level of 24/7 dedication. Sometimes he forgot that he reported to us not the other way around.

However, over time as he matured and took us to unimagined heights, Graham came to respect and trust us more as partners who could help him and his staff team win rather than regarding us as absentee landlords or meddlers who wanted to second guess or deny him. He grew more comfortable asking us for opinions, ideas and advice not just for money or after-the-fact permission. He even had moments that went against his prideful nature when he accepted, if not welcomed, our criticism. Though challenging for the board at times, Graham’s singleminded conviction, his definitive daring, his irrepressible optimism was what made him such a compellingly successful and captivating leader.

When I took over two years ago as President of our board, Graham and I agreed to meet every other week for “Pat Chats” in his corner office. He always came enthusiastic, open and prepared with a list of items on his legal pad. These were mostly quiet and productive moments and I marveled at how much he loved what he was doing, how devoted he was to our mission and cause, and I always left those chats thinking how lucky we were to have him.

Graham loved film. It was his labor. It was his life. It shaped and defined his personality, behavior, lifestyle and values. His favorite films, his wardrobe and his sense of humor were noir. His opinions and tastes – black and white. His language – Technicolorful and for mature audiences only. His politics were indie. His executive directorial style – auteur not verite. His stage presence – animated superhero. His creative process 3D – determination, dash and design. His karaoke singing – experimental. His personal life either epic or romcom. His early budgets – science fiction. His later ones – action thriller. And his driving skills – apocalyptic horror.

It would be hard to exaggerate the profound and lasting impact Graham had on the Film Society and the community we serve. He transformed us from a two-week festival producer into a cultural institution with worldwide reach and reputation offering yearround exhibition, education and filmmaker funding and services. With the graceful tuck under of Film Arts Foundation in 2008, the ongoing partnership with the Rainin Foundation to fund films of social significance and the recent opening of the Film Society’s “starter home” at the SF Film Society/New People Cinema on Post Street, his legacy is in place and secure. Inspired by his leadership and example, our board and staff are honored and excited to carry on his work and build upon his vision.

If there were an Oscar for the Best Executive Director, Graham surely would have won it. He revived, repurposed and revisioned our organization, turned it into a serious cultural institution and beautified the landscape for film audiences and filmmakers in the Bay Area and beyond. As he was fond of saying, the Film Society has grown from being a greenhouse to a farm. Though we who loved Graham, worked with him and are now the beneficiaries of his legacy would have wished for a more extended run together, he and his gifts to us and film culture everywhere will remain in our hearts and memories forever. Today is just the beginning of the celebration of the life of Graham Leggat and the life he gave the Film Society. It shall go on for years to come.

Graham, we take comfort in knowing you re now in a better place but so are we because of you. So thanks and here’s looking at you, pal. Take a final bow. You were bleeping brilliant!

Barry Jenkins, director of “Medicine for Melancholy”

Believe it or not, the hardest part about this whole thing was… figuring out what to wear. Graham was a hell of dresser, the last thing I thought he’d want me to wear up here was a black suit… unless of course it was black leather, in which case I’m sure that would’ve been alright with G. Anytime I would see Graham, anytime there was even the remote possibility I was gonna see Graham, I had to make sure I was dressed right. The last time I saw Diana I was twenty minutes late because I couldn’t get myself properly dressed, if I was gonna see G I had to be wearing the right jacket.

Graham was an outsized man. It’s difficult to even try to capture him here in so few words. I admired the cat, I admired him and not so much for what he had done or was doing but rather, for the singlemindedness with which he was going about it. Graham, in working here, had found the thing that drove him, that really drove him and he’d made the choice to put his all into it. He’d found a sort of freedom for his talents. And in turn, with the amazing things he began here layering and combining and adjoining so many different resources under the film society umbrella, he created a foundation to encourage a freedom for the talents of people like myself and other filmmakers here and throughout the Bay Area who want to create work both about our city and, like my friend Amanda Michelli, abroad.

I’ve known Graham since about 2007. And, I don’t think you’ll here this about Graham very often but, we actually met in the men’s room, yes, the men’s room of the Kabuki theater. I had just seen a film at the festival, this movie by a woman named Nikki Karimi, a really small Iranian film that I really loved and there was no Q&A after and so I was curious if the filmmaker was at the festival so, I’m in the men’s room and I look up and I’m like, oh wow, there’s that skinny bald dude I see all over the festival. I’m gonna ask that cat about this film. And so he washes his hands and checks himself in the mirror, classic G, and as he turns from the mirror I tap him on the shoulder and I think I literally say, hey, you’re the cat who runs this festival, right?

And he looks at me, and it’s one of the few times I’ve ever seen G’ get a “Who the hell kind of look on his face?” And he’s like, yeah, I am, how can I help you.” We’re in the men’s room, the one right around the corner from the big house, it’s theater one and the place is pretty packed, I’m realizing I’m in over my head a bit and so I just start blurting out about how I’d just seen this little film and how beautiful it was and how I was just curious if the filmmaker was here because I wanted to hear what she had to say about it and as I’m talking G just gets this smile on his face, this really, really big smile and he pats me on the back and leads me out of the men’s room and tells me all about Ms. Karimi, that she couldn’t make it and it was unfortunate because it was a really great film that deserves to be seen and then, of course, he asks what else I’ve seen and recommends a few more, is just really sweet and caring in a way he always was once he saw some kernel of passion for film, on either side of the screen.

When I made my first film a year later, and I sent it to him with nothing more than a reminder of that time I bombarded him in the mensroom of the Kabuki, he remembered me and was, again, kind enough to watch a piece of work that had no business going to the executive director of the San Francisco Film Society. But that was G man, if you made a connection, if he saw something genuine in you he was sold.

Those first few years that G was here I think he deciced to put a stake in the sand, he cast his lot as he liked to say on the Bay Area film community, both filmgoers and, just as importantly to him, filmmakers.

I’ve always felt extremely proud that he thought enough of me to include me in that selective group.

I learned so many things from Graham, the man inspired me. Diligence and perspective, the two most utmost. And the ability to have a little fun with it, with life. Such a toothy laugh, that man. Especially for someone carrying so much weight on his shoulders, the filmmaking hopes of an entire city, and yet always that grin of his.

I’m so grateful that I had the chance to have the guy in my life. I’ve never had a father; my father figures have always been coaches in some form or another. Graham loved to speak in sports idioms, though like the best coaches and fathers he was genuine and consistent and he lived the life that he preached.

I want to be saddened right now. And in some parts of me, at certain moments, I am. But I keep thinking of stopping this man in the restroom, and the beauty of so the many interactions with him that followed. And how possible it may have been to have never had any of that happen. How fortunate we all were to have this man in our lives. And in keeping his loving memory close to head and heart, how fortunate we’ll all continue to be.

A few quotes:

“If you’re going to be hung — and if you’re in management, you will eventually be hung — you might as well be hung for who you are than who you’re not.”

And filmmaker Brant Smith’s reaction:

Graham’s secret of course, is that this isn’t about management.

For all the advice I’ve tried to collect here on this site on how to get your film funded, how to write a great script, how to make a movie that people want to see and how to get people to buy it and see it, I can think of no better admonishment for myself or my fellow DIY filmmakers.

And one more from Graham:

“Hahaha. Jesus, there are lots of little funny things,” he wrote recently. “I can’t even remember half of them. That’s what happens to a life, though, isn’t it? The little ornate things drizzle away, like cakes in rain, while the big blocky stuff is left to stand in for a lifetime of minutiae. Sad and beautiful.”

So sad, but beautiful, I guess bittersweet. Bittersweet, the best term I can think of in this moment, a sadness for the passing of our friend but such sweetness for having had the pleasure of sharing the time we did with him. Going forward, it’ll be my mission to create more work that pays respect to the faith he had in myself, in all the filmmakers and filmgoers in this community. To be thought of and cared for so endearingly by such a wonderful man. The filmmakes of this community have truly been blessed to have his guidance.

We’ll always love you G.

[More tributes follow on the next page]

Steven Jenkins, acting executive director of San Francisco Film Society

Good afternoon, my name is Steven Jenkins, and it has been my pleasure and honor to have worked alongside Graham at the San Francisco Film Society for the past four-and-a-half years, primarily as Deputy Director and Graham’s right-hand man (he enjoyed introducing me at meetings as his “number two guy” or, channeling Charlie Chan, his “number one son,” with all due respect to Willie). Sometimes he’d even call me “baby,” which I must confess I sort of loved. I have been entrusted with representing my fellow Film Society staff members today in celebrating Graham and all that he has meant to us–and always will–both professionally and personally.

Speakers from left Celeste Meier (SFFS board of directors), Pat McBaine (SFFS board president) , Melanie Blum (SFFS board of directors) , Robert Rosenthal (executive director Center for Investigative Reporting), Barry Jenkins (director Medicine for Melancholy), Steve Jenkins (acting executive director SFFS), Peter Coyote (actor and Zen Buddhist monk). Photo credit Michael Read/San Francisco Film Society

I will do my best to do him justice, though every one of us might tell a similarly affectionate yet singular story.

Graham the Boss: Equal parts tough and tender, raising his expectations of us as dedicated, hard-working employees ever higher, demanding simply by his demeanor–intense and energetic, yet also calm and kind–that we excel, that we, to cop a favorite Graham phrase, make sure to have all our ducks in a row. So we lined up our ducks, we stayed late at the office, we crossed items off of our endless “to do” lists, not only for our own sense of a job well done but because we wanted to live up to Graham’s vision of us–individually and collectively–as pros, as better than the rest, as the best we could possibly be. Weekly staff meetings were eagerly anticipated occasions for the Great Scott to brilliantly opine and inspire; dazzling off-the-cuff speeches mixed incisive analysis of any given day’s complex work situation with rah-rah cheerleading, and always ended with the mantra printed on the back of today’s program: Take care of yourself, take care of your job, take care of each other. We took those words to heart and put them into practice.

Graham the Philosopher: “Nothing is real. Everything is permitted,” he wrote to me on a fog-shrouded Tuesday afternoon just a couple of months ago, paraphrasing ancient Master of the Assassins Hassan-I Sabbah by way of William S. Burroughs. The next day he might have referenced Heming-way, or Murakami, or even Johnny Rotten of the Sex Pistols (“God save the queen, she ain’t no human being,” Graham sneered at a raucous karaoke party with an authentic British punker’s healthy disdain for authority). Shining brightly and alive to every movement, his eyes would dart back and forth rapidly, recklessly, as his mind spun, and you knew that a gem of an idea was forthcoming within seconds of that left-right-left-right ocular shift.

“I have a deep constitutional dislike of small-mindedness,” he wrote to me within days of our first meeting, referencing a prima-donna filmmaker’s petty complaint, and sure enough, he thought big, bold and bona fide. Pity the poor sap who found himself on the wrong side of Graham’s approval. Like a classic James Bond villain, relishing the power of his own authority and wicked wordsmithery, Graham once threatened to subject a noteworthy nemesis to, and I quote, “the spectre of my displeasure.” From that day on I strove never to incur that wrath; I’m proud to say I remained in good standing with Graham until the end.

Graham the Friend: We really, really liked each other. A bromance, as it’s known in the parlance of the contemporary romantic comedy. We roomed together at the Toronto Film Festival, and Graham made me breakfast. Will I ever have another boss who would do the same? We talked all the time about books, music (the maestro Tom Waits), movies (of course) and life experiences both difficult and joyous. “Here’s to the wonders of rough sex, tattoos and all the other good things in this world,” he texted me late one night, a propos of nothing in particular. Then, another time at 3:00 am, I received a text: “Are you awake? Want to talk about the financial reports?” The sad thing was, I WAS awake, and already thinking about the damned financials. So we talked, and figured out how to solve problems, and we enjoyed hatching plans together. He was filled with love and admiration for each and every Film Society staffer past and present. He gave us many gifts both material and magisterial. He even gave me this tie; granted, it was a freebie from our corporate sponsorship deal with Gucci, but still, why keep something–a tie, an idea, a joke, a smile–if someone else needed it more? Giving gives pleasure to the giver; Graham was a happy fellow indeed.

We’re still following your lead, Graham, as we spend our days in the Presidio, or at our new theater in Japantown that you secured for us. We miss you here, and in less tangible topographies far beyond workaday worry and onscreen cinematic beauty. We miss you strolling around the office whistling Coldplay’s “Speed of Sound,” we miss your moxie, we miss your irrepressible, irreplaceable Graham Leggatness…I’m not sure what else to call it. Boss, philosopher, friend…you’re one of a kind, baby. With enduring love from all of us on staff.

Peter Coyote, actor and Zen Buddhist monk

I have an unenviable job today, because there is nothing anyone can say, or any philosophy can offer to assuage the pain of an early death, especially when that person, like Graham, is loved, respected and at the peak of their creative energies.

Sorrow is real. It is as real as hummingbirds and cumulus clouds and efforts to avoid it actually makes it stronger in the same way that resisting a muscle makes it stronger. The more fully we allow ourselves to experience our actual feelings, pleasant or not; without flinching or distraction, the more intimate we are with what’s real. When we’re in touch with what is real, we cannot be deluded by anything. Another name for this intimacy is “Wisdom.”

Graham understood and practiced this wisdom. He was not only a Buddhist, but in my personal lineage of the great teacher, Sunryu Suzuki Roshi who founded San Francisco Zen Center where Graham practiced. Perhaps this is why I’ve been asked to say a few words today.

The simple practice of sitting-still, called za-zen, which we both discovered, is a daily practice of aligning oneself with reality. When we do this repeatedly, even in the midst of intense suffering, a curious and life-saving adjustment takes place. The fundamental law of Nature, that “everything changes,” comes to our rescue. Once we accept what is actually happening, we become aligned with reality and when we do, we notice the flux of events. Everything is changing. We can see that when we stop moving around and distracting ourselves.

When we agree to sit still, we release the anxiety that tries to keep everything the way we like it. Once we do that, our suffering begins to change. Small clearings appear in the apparent solidity of our hurt and we discover a bit of room to move around in. The sun-light on water, or a child’s gesture, displaces the monopoly our loss holds over our consciousness. Constant change, once our enemy has now saved us.

I always felt that Graham was uncannily aware of this, and his practice of staying aligned with reality was what freed him to be so present and engaged with his friends, his work, and his community.

A number of us in this room today visited him when he held court at Tosca’s a short while before his death. He was luminous that night…smiling, happy, greeting well-wishers, loving his son tucked in next to him; appreciating his co-workers and friends. He was obviously deeply touched by the outpouring of affection on his behalf. This delight occurred in the face of his indisputable knowledge that it was all about to be taken from him.

He might have been distracted by his pending loss of this world, or given way to grief about missing his children’s growing to maturity, and we would certainly have forgiven him that. He would not have been human if those feelings had not passed through him. But that night,… In that moment, Graham was helping us; demonstrating how to be fully human under the sentence of death passed on each of us at birth. He was demonstrating, by example, how to face reality and to find joy in this world, just as it is, even in the face of one’s personal death.

Graham was never sick. Not for a moment. He had cancer. He never had ‘sickness’ as a train of thought, or ceaseless mental preoccupation, and he taught us that too. This slight, self-effacing man chose, in his last days, to sing through the flames consuming him— to help us remember what is truly important. I am so humbled by that.

In closing, “I’d like to read a short quote from a lecture by Suzuki-roshi,. It pleases me to imagine that it might have influenced Graham. Suzuki Roshi said:

“Our everyday life is like a movie playing on the wide screen. Most people are interested in the picture on the screen without realizing there is a screen….When you are just interested in the movie on the screen and it ends, then you expect another show tomorrow, or maybe you are discouraged because there is nothing good on right now. You don’t realize that the screen is always there.

But when you are practicing, you realize that your mind is like a screen. If the screen is colorful, colorful enough to attract people, then it will not serve its purpose. So to have a screen which is not colorful- to have a pure, plain white screen—is the most important point. But most people are not interested in the pure white screen…” Za-zen practice is necessary to know the kind of screen you have and to enjoy your life as you enjoy movies in the theater. You are not afraid of the screen. You do not have any particular feeling for the screen, which is just a white screen. So, you are not afraid of your life at all. You enjoy something you are afraid of. You enjoy something that makes you angry or makes you cry, and you enjoy the crying and the anger too….That white screen is not something that you can actually attain; it is something you always have.”

And so, in the illusory world of film, and the illusory world of what we call ‘real life’, our beloved friend Graham pursued his practice of keeping his attention fixed firmly on “the screen.” He understood the secret of it. We may think that he’s “gone”, but he remains on our screens and is no more gone than Marlon Brando or Akira Kurosawa and others who have left great work behind them. Neither is he gone literally. Before his parents met, part of him was in each of them – just like the rest of us. Part was in his grandparents and so forth. Graham was never not a part of the universe. Not once, before, during, or after his individual life has he ever been separated from “all of it.” Neither are we. Graham will return as the rain. I promise.

Thank you very much.

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